Rosemary Sutcliff did not spare the child, the raven and the wolf gorging on the battlefield dead. No softening, or cheapening, of violence. When you opened her books, you went easily with her into the days she described so immediately: she noticed the rhythms of rain on glass as children do, felt the same warm amazement at snow. You might not know what was this cake called a barley bannock they seemed always to eat in her books, but you recognised the domestic concentration at dinner-cooking time.
And then you would gulp her titles —’Please Miss, have you got any more by ‘er?’—past bedtime, in the last of the summer afterglow. You were caught: and she did not let you off the actual shape of life and death. The fear, the physical pain, the disappointments, the ageing, the dying. (There was an afternoon, I remember, when the brutal end of the Norseman warrior Ari Knudson of The Shield Ring bleached out the heat of a holiday sun, and another, bleaker, when nothing seemed real but the Roman legionary, turned renegade, speaking his very last Latin words and saluting The Eagle of the Ninth before fading into another misty life.)
She did not assume you were ever too young to know the powerful, if frightening, truth – that nothing is wholly new, even the brief freshness of a new generation; that continual change, but also repetition, are history. We do not tell children these things so much now: we do not recount the generations. But reading her, you waited excitedly for that Roman ring with a dolphin cut in its emerald which runs in a thread of lineal descent from book to book, from life to life. So history was lives? It was always different, always the same, and the pattern only visible after? Those who read Sutcliff don’t recall formally learning about the gods Adonis, Mithras, Lugh of the Shining Spear and the Christos: we seem always to have known them. Years of art history never made as clear as she did, in two pages, the difference in the souls of cultures between the rigid ornament of Rome and the Celtic patterns that flow and whorl like life itself. You had access through her, as never since through the heritage industry, into time past when it was time present.
When the archaeologist Catherine Hills once noted that the battered Roman eagle found at Silchester was probably awaiting the contempt of the scrap furnace, she did sadly, almost apologetically. For her, as for the rest of us, he seemed a talisman of the knowledge of that departed civilisation, restored to his story by Sutcliff. And the Sutcliff story was, as legends are, almost closer to a truth.
Source: The Guardian, 3 August 1992. Used with the author’s permission